Bark beetles have discovered the good life in California’s overgrown forests. A combination of extended drought and mild winters has led to an enormous infestation of these pests. They have killed over 66 million trees, creating the conditions for catastrophic fires and an environmental crisis. Other states in the West are experiencing a similar problem.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency addressing the tree mortality crisis. Extensive removal work is under way in high-hazard areas under state control. However, what to do with the dead trees once you take them out of the forest?
One solution is to turn dead trees from a public liability into a useful public purpose by transforming them into biomass energy fuel. It turns out that California has a network of existing biomass energy plants that can convert this fuel to useful, clean energy.
Biomass Energy’s History in California
Biomass energy generation has been a small but integral part of California’s energy mix. Historically, lumber and paper mills in the state used wood waste as a fuel to cogenerate electricity and steam. The passage of the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 saw the industry grow rapidly with power purchase agreements that made them viable businesses. Over 800 MW of total capacity was eventually built.
In addition to the forest products industries, the agricultural sector found biomass energy to be useful in disposing of orchard prunings, rice hulls, pits, and shells as an environmentally responsible alternative to open field burning or landfill. These waste materials were diverted to biomass energy plants with emissions control equipment, which reduced air pollution and related health problems in California’s agricultural regions.
However, market conditions changed, new challenges arose with lower-cost gas generation, low natural gas prices, and, eventually, low-cost grid solar. Additionally, biomass energy is more labor intensive than other technologies. The gathering, chipping, and transporting of fuel plus the generating of electricity all require human labor, which is great for rural economic development and jobs but a huge hurdle in producing a competitive commodity like electricity. Currently, there are about 20 plants with roughly 500 MW of generating capacity still operating in California.
Biomass Facility Challenges
While these facilities have a long history, they face a challenging future in California’s energy market—and in other regions as well. The problem is straightforward. The co-benefits of waste diversion from open burning reduces air pollution, resulting in positive health benefits; yet, these benefits are not factored into the commodity price of energy. Meanwhile, the state has not yet figured out a means by which biomass facilities today can recover their full costs and make a reasonable rate of return.
Several other factors also play into the future viability of these biomass plants.
First, although California has a Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) based on “least cost best fit” resource selection, so far the emphasis has been on “least cost.” This has led to significant growth in the wind and solar industries but not too much support for biomass facilities. As California implements its 50% RPS by 2030, the conversation has started to focus on the continued role of baseload renewables, such as biomass energy and geothermal. Put another way: How to put the “portfolio” back into the Renewables Portfolio Standard?
Second, the fuel is available, but transporting it to biomass facilities is an added expense. This transportation cost needs to be factored into any long-term solution, particularly since the alternatives are so bad. Burning this material, either through uncontrolled wildfires or in the open field, adds significant air pollutants that are otherwise controlled when burned in an environmentally permitted biomass facility. Letting it decompose in place creates methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Third, recently enacted legislation (SB 859) requires utilities to purchase 125 MW of biomass generation from existing biomass facilities. There are a number of implementation issues that will need to be addressed. Moreover, a big challenge is that a significant number of the dead trees are on federal land, beyond state control.
From Beetle Problem to Biomass Energy
California has taken an important first step in addressing the tree mortality issue and is trying to respond to this issue in real time. Biomass energy will not stop the bark beetle infestation, but it does provide an environmentally responsible method of disposing of dead trees before they ignite in a forest fire.
But that first step is not enough. Other sectors, such as agriculture, will be facing new pressures related to disposing of biomass material if there are further closures of biomass energy facilities. Open field burning of agricultural waste raises a host of air quality and related health issues that have been mitigated by the presence of these same biomass plants.
The biomass energy industry’s long history in California is under real pressure. Falling electricity revenues have undermined the financial sustainability of these facilities at a time when the beetle challenge makes their utility more apparent than ever. Recent actions taken to help abate impacts of the bark beetles give reason for optimism in the short term. However, we need new long-term approaches to recognize the value of this industry—to our forests, the agricultural sector, our energy supply, and the economy. ■
— Jan Smutny-Jones is CEO of the Independent Energy Producers Assoc. (iepa.com).